The Half Light: Moonrise Kingdom and Our Dying Passion

Movies Features Moonrise Kingdom

“If in my youth I had realized that the sustaining splendour of beauty of with which I was in love would one day flood back into my heart, there to ignite a flame that would torture me without end, how gladly would I have put out the light in my eyes.”

“Youth is to all the glad season of life; but often only by what it hopes, not by what it attains, or what it escapes.”
-Thomas Carlyle

At the end of Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s newest film, there’s a moment where Sam, the boy at the heart of the story, is studiously painting while his girlfriend Suzy sits in a nearby window seat. They’ve just concluded a romantic adventure on the island of New Penzance, eluding the authorities in an attempt to run away from their troubles and live together in a child’s idea of utopia. The escape is brief. The adults—all spiritually exhausted and psychically eroded by disappointment, in true Anderson fashion—invade paradise and yank them back to reality. We get our happy ending, to some degree, but the closing shot of the film reveals something else in Sam’s painting. What we see on the canvas is not Suzy by the bay window, like we expected, but a depiction of the beach where they spent an impossible night before the adults caught up, which was later wiped off the map by a hurricane. Anderson cuts from the painting to the beach itself, where a series of stones spell out the name Sam and Suzy chose to replace the mundane “Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet:” Moonrise Kingdom.

I found this moment indescribably gorgeous, and it left me a little bit shattered. Near the back of the theaters, tears ran down my face as the lights came up. My fiancée, who enjoyed the film, saw me crying and gave me a look that said “You’ve got to be kidding.” To her, it was a happy ending. It wasn’t unhappy to me, per se, but it was full of melancholy. As we walked to a yogurt shop near the theater and I replayed the scene in my mind, the tears wouldn’t stop, and it started to become embarrassing. You are a grown man who is crying in a yogurt shop, I thought to myself, and that finally stopped the tears.

Anderson is my favorite artist, and each of his movies has at least one gutting moment that knocks me over with a wave of pure sadness, but also gives me a vibrant sensation that I associate with beauty. His detractors say he’s too precious, or too calculating, or too reliant on mechanisms like dry delivery and visual gags. I think they’re missing the point, but it doesn’t matter; what I feel during his films is something I could never fake, and all I can say is that it reaches a place within me that is mostly hidden, or maybe lost.

But my question is, why? Why am I, a guy who doesn’t cry at almost anything, including real-life things that should probably make me cry, so vulnerable to Anderson’s films? Why is it something that my fiancée and others like her- people whose artistic tastes I respect, admire, and envy- don’t quite feel on the same visceral level?

The only way I can answer this question is to revisit the moments themselves. What they all have in common, from Max Fischer’s romantic longing (“She was my Rushmore, Max.” “I know…she was mine too.”) to Chas Tenenbaum’s final breakdown (“I’ve had a rough year pop”) to Steve Zissou’s confrontation with the jaguar shark (“I wonder if it remembers me”), is a desperate sense of loss, and a groping for a faltering flame that had roared at full blaze sometime in their past. It’s a rage against the dying of the light, but not in the life-or-death way Dylan Thomas intended. This is a fight to save some of the immaculate highs and lows of youth, to stave off the gray emotional flat line that comes later, tapering off just below happiness.

Of course, this is an artistic statement on Anderson’s part, and I bet even he wouldn’t want us to take it as dogma. There are a million ways for a life to play out, and there are many among us who don’t descend into that nether region of middle-aged ennui. He writes about men who never quite grew up, and for whom the “real” world, distinct from their youthful fantasies, is a hard pill to swallow. It’s almost as though imagination and passion become hazards as they age, and a rich inner life becomes a curse. This is why the frequent comparison to Salinger functions well, at least on an emotive level. Holden Caulfield’s vivid crisis, which I see as a transitional moment between youth and whatever comes next, whether it’s a fulfilled adulthood, lingering boyhood, or total failure, is reflected in each of Anderson’s movies.

But while the spiritual suffering they describe is not universal, it’s something that’s become easier to spot in my generation. We’re in a unique place historically, our transition made more taxing by a transitional moment in the world at large. Many of our childhoods were materially easier than most cultures could ever imagine, but we’re being thrust into an America that is more difficult than at any time since the Great Depression. Our growing pains seem somehow more acute, considering our lack of preparation.

Six years ago, I interviewed Jonas Bjerre, the lead singer of the Danish band Mew, for a small New York publication. His songs are plaintive in a way that remind me of Anderson, and often deal with loss of love and youth. When I asked him about that theme, he gave me this answer: “I am drawn to the loss of innocence and the purity of feelings you had at a certain point in life. Being a teenager was so binary, you know over-the-moon-happy or suicidal. There was something very pure about that and it was like being a blank book, each page changing your life. Lost love is a big part of that. After that things became more nuanced for me, which I also use, but I try to make every line count. I think part of what people think as ‘growing up’ has to do with letting go of really important stuff. The colors of your spirit, the playfulness and curiosity…and of course the need to express yourself is much stronger when you are experiencing feelings of hurt and melancholy.”

His words took me a back to a moment at the end of my senior year of high school. I had been “in love” with a girl most of the year, and I put that term in quotes because it was a simple idea of love, totally divested from her personality and having everything to do with my capacity for passion and obsession. When I finally worked up the courage to ask her out—a terrible moment, nervy and comically far from any of my most optimistic projections—she rejected me as nicely as she could. I walked home, laid down on my front lawn, and stared at the sky as it grew dark. The old cliché applied—I actually felt like my heart would burst. Even then, without the aid of experience, I remember drifting outside myself for a moment and marveling at how strongly I felt. I couldn’t even cry; it was like being overwhelmed by an inner current that couldn’t be shut off. The sadness was intense, but it felt illuminating. Every part of me felt alive, and I felt more artistic and human than I had ever felt before. I wasn’t wise enough to know it then, but today I consider this a great moment in my life.

In context, though, that seems like a silly thing to say. The girl meant nothing to me; we were very different, and we really didn’t know each other. I have no idea what’s happened to her in the decade since. The love I feel for my fiancée dwarfs anything I felt for her, as it should. What I have now is deeper and more substantial by far, superior in every way that matters. But—and here’s where things get confusing—there’s not a single aspect of my life that could propel me back to that place of painful intensity, that sheer wrenching high that inspires us to art and drugs. Too much has happened since—too many triumphs tinged by disappointment, disappointments tinged by triumph, and all the inevitable cynicism that comes when you learn how even the best dreams are compromised by a world of entrenched systems. Wes Anderson’s films don’t exactly reproduce those forgotten moments, but they do provide a fleeting reminder of what they were like.

The memory of my rejection, of course, is a negative one, and I don’t exactly rue its loss. But I miss the passion. And watching Sam paint, from memory, affected me in the same way. His future was evident elsewhere in the film; the hurricane destroyed the beach in a moment of pure symbolism (you can never go back), and the reality of adulthood was written on the faces of the men and women all around him. He’ll lose Suzy, though it won’t be anyone’s fault, and things will have to change. The night they spent in the tent, naming their new world in stones, will always be the buried part of his soul he wishes he could touch just one more time. And that, I realized, is why I couldn’t stop crying. For the rest of his life, he’ll be painting Moonrise Kingdom.

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